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Chapel on wheels gets big attention Museum car could be added to national historic registry

The Messenger of Peace arrives at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie last fall. The car once traveled across the United States as a mobile church, and is now waiting to be restored to its former glory at the museum, pending grants and donations. - Courtesy photo
The Messenger of Peace arrives at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie last fall. The car once traveled across the United States as a mobile church, and is now waiting to be restored to its former glory at the museum, pending grants and donations.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The Messenger of Peace Chapel Car, one of 15 such railway-traveling ‘churches’ in the United States, provided religious services across the west from the 1890s through the 1940s.

For nearly 50 years, the Messenger made hundreds of stops in 10 states, mostly in the west, but as far east as West Virginia.

Long ago retired from the railroad tracks, the car is in the process of being restored to its original evangelical glory by volunteers from the Northwest Railway Museum.

“Patterns of American culture were tied to this car,” said Richard Anderson, executive director of the museum.

Purchased in 2007 by the museum, Messenger of Peace is one of three surviving chapel cars in the United States. Officially de-comissioned in March 1949, the car was sold for $400 and converted into a roadside diner in Snohomish, called the ‘Ritz-Limited Cafe.’ In 1951, the Messenger moved again, this time to the Olympic Peninsula, where it became an ocean-side cottage. After many years of non-rail use and eventual neglect, the wooden, 70-foot-long car fell into disrepair. By 1999, it was being used for storage. But the Messenger still had a lot of life left.

Messenger of Peace is currently under review for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and the Washington Heritage Register for recognition of its historical significance.

A meeting will be held Saturday, July 26 at the Columbia County Courthouse in Dayton, Wash., to determine if the Messenger will be added to the registry.

Messenger of Peace was described by Sam Neil, the first missionary to serve on-board, as “the largest, the loveliest, the lightest, and the brightest of them all” at the car’s dedication in 1898 at Union Station in Rochester, N. Y., prior to its debut at the World Exposition in St. Louis, Mo.

Fund-raising efforts of Baptist women from across the country covered the entire cost of construction and led to the railcar’s nickname, ‘‘The Ladies’ Car.’’

“The ladies do not do things by halves,” Neil said.

While on display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, as many as 10,000 people walked through the car. One couple chose to hold their wedding ceremony that weekend while on board. The Messenger of Peace shared first-place honors at the World’s Fair with another coach owned by Anheuser Busch Brewing Company.

In 1910, the Messenger partnered with the YMCA and started to advocate the establishment of YMCA branches while stopped in various towns.

The car rolled into Washington state for the first time in December of 1915 and traveled throughout the state until 1922, when the car receive a fresh coat of paint and other much-needed repairs while in South Tacoma. Reverend Robert F. Gray and his wife took over the car, but found that a war-time environment and increased use of automobiles made rail travel more costly and less attractive.

The Messenger, located among other Northwest Rail Museum cars, may enjoy the retirement it deserves if the museum is able to secure grant funding for the coach’s restoration. It would be a retirement with honors, should the chapel car be accepted to the National Register of Historic Places and the Washington Heritage Register.

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